MANILA, Philippines — Pro-family forces in the Philippines won a temporary victory when the nation’s Supreme Court issued a stay "status quo ante" on the much-contested reproductive-health law that was due to go into effect at the end of March.
Passed by the Philippines Legislature and signed by President Benigno Aquino shortly before Christmas last year, the law provides government funds for widespread dissemination of contraceptives, which are classified as normal health care, including those that may cause early abortions. The law also mandates sex education in public grade schools and targets poor people for family-planning education.
The nation’s highest court issued the stay in a 10-5 vote on March 19, putting the law — officially called the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 — on hold for 120 days until the petitions challenging its constitutionality can be reviewed. The court is expected to hear oral arguments on the law June 18.
Father Melvin Castro of the Philippine Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s Commission on Family and Life said in a statement that the court’s decision was a welcome but "temporary victory" that gave opponents time to form their best arguments and continue to educate the Filipino people about the law’s drawbacks. Noting that the ruling came on the feast of St. Joseph, patron of families, Father Castro said, "The high court has listened to our prayers against a law that’s questionable and which, according to the [Philippine] Constitution, should not be implemented."
Msgr. Pedro Quitorio, spokesman for the bishops’ conference, told the Register, "After the RH bill passed, so many were discouraged and disappointed, but now we are so happy and energized. We have a window of opportunity to engage the court and public opinion."
At the annual March for Life in the capital city of Manila on March 16, three days before the ruling, speakers urged voters in the forthcoming May elections to remove lawmakers who supported passage of the law.
President Aquino, who is not up for election, had strongly pushed for passage of the RH bill since taking office in 2010, claiming that it is necessary to improve maternal health and reduce poverty. A spokesman for Aquino told the media that the government is confident that the law will be upheld by the court and fully implemented.
In a dissenting opinion to the high court’s issuing a stay on March 19, associate Justice Marvic Leonen, recently nominated by Aquino to the court, argued that a law passed by the Legislature and signed by the president should be given the "presumption of constitutionality" unless on its face it violates the national Constitution. Calling the law "social legislation," he wrote, "Our Constitution expects us to be more deliberate in the heat of vociferous public debate that occasionally wades into issues of morality and conscience."
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, another Aquino appointee, also voted against the stay.
The bill had been introduced in various forms in legislative sessions for more than a decade but had never reached the floor for a vote until last year.
Abortion is illegal in the Philippines, where more than 80% of the 94 million people are Catholic, but contraceptives are widely available for those who can afford them. RH law proponents claim that the government should make contraceptives easily available for poor people so they may be able to plan for the number of children they can support.
Among the law’s provisions that family advocates find most troubling is the statement, "Parents bring forth to the world only those children whom they can raise in a truly humane way," since it might be used to enforce a minimum-child policy like China’s coercive one-child restriction. Those against the law also point out that the term "reproductive health" is used by some international lobbying groups to promote legalized abortion.
Pro-Family Legal Brief
In a brief filed with the high court, Ricardo Ribo, an attorney, claims that the Philippine Constitution is based on pro-life, pro-family principles, in keeping with the Catholic faith held by the majority of the populace.
"The will of the sovereign Filipino people, as expressed in our Constitution, is God-centered, where human dignity is inviolable, where the sanctity of family life and marriage is protected and where the essence of social justice and precepts of truth, justice, love, equality and peace are sacredly inscribed," the petition reads.
Pro-Life Philippines, an umbrella group for pro-life and pro-family advocates, which is among the petitioners to the court, said in a March 19 statement, "The supporters of RH will not stop until every letter of the law is implemented and the culture of death reigns in our nation. … This is also a time for praying for all the Supreme Court justices, that they may continue to uphold the Constitution, and that those in power will do their utmost to protect the weak and the poor."
Maria Caulfield writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.